Blue and red flashing lights filling the mirror after a spirited canyon run are never welcomed. Yet this time, I've fully embraced them. Why?
I'm driving down California's Pacific Coast Highway in Audi's one-of-a-kind Quattro Concept with a full police escort. In front, law enforcement is clearing the road ahead as if sweeping for mines, pushing civilian traffic off to the side. I've got another unit behind me, shooing the restless natives off my flanks. The parade is impressive, but I'm wary of the pageantry. Are the cops there to solely maintain a generous cushion around the multi-million dollar concept, or has Audi paid them to keep me from rocketing off into the sunset off with their turbocharged 190-mph sports coupe?
I'm tempted to floor it and find out.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
To know Audi's Quattro Concept, you have to recall the original Audi Quattro (a.k.a."Ur-Quattro") from 1980. Launched 30 years ago, the two-door coupe was the first sports car to feature the automaker's new Quattro all-wheel-drive system. With a turbocharged 2.1-liter inline five-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission, the original 200-horsepower street variant was good for a 0-60 sprint of around seven seconds and a top speed of 137 mph. Rally-prepared, and with hundreds of additional horses under the hood, the Audi Quattro was unstoppable, dominating the Group B class in rally competitions around the world for years.
Commemorating the success of the legendary Audi Quattro, the engineers and designers at Audi set out to develop a modern interpretation – an homage – to the classic. Their efforts were unveiled at the 2010 Paris Motor Show.
The all-new Audi Quattro Concept is built on an aluminum spaceframe based on the automaker's existing RS5 platform. To meet the designer's penned proportions, the wheelbase has been chopped 5.9 inches, the rear overhang reduced by 7.9 inches and the overall height dropped 1.6 inches. Steel door panels have been replaced by aluminum, and most everything else inside and out is constructed of lightweight carbon fiber (right down to the trick Audi badges and rearview mirror). With featherweight power-operated carbon-fiber Recaro seats up front and no accommodations for rear passengers, Audi has been able to keep the weight to just 2,900 pounds (roughly the same as its spiritual ancestor).
Dropped under the composite hood is Audi's familiar iron block/aluminum head 2.5-liter inline-five. With a single turbocharger fitted to its exhaust, the direct-injected powerplant has been tuned to deliver 408 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque (a six-speed manual is the transmission on the concept, but expect a direct-shift automatic gearbox to be added to the options list if the coupe goes into production). While the nearly identical engine, with a slightly less aggressive tune, is found transversely-mounted under the hood of the soon-to-arrive Audi TT RS, the Quattro Concept gets it longitudinal, a requirement for it to mate to a modified RS5 driveline.
The all-wheel-drive system on the Quattro Concept uses Audi's lightweight self-locking crown-gear center differential, but the show car has not been fitted with the innovative torque-vectoring system (weight savings, again). Under normal dry-road operation, 60 percent of torque is delivered to the rear wheels. However, when less-than-perfect traction dictates, up to 85 percent of the system's torque can immediately be sent to the axle in need.
The suspension is a fairly standard setup with sport struts with race-rate springs, but the carbon-ceramic brake package has been pulled straight from the flagship R8 GT. Bolted to each hub is a 20-inch cast aluminum wheel, shod with 275/30R20 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT tires.
While dimensionally quite compact, the Quattro Concept has a surprising amount of room within its cabin. My six-foot two-inch frame fits perfectly into the thin Recaro seat and headroom is generous. The footwell has a properly-placed dead pedal, but the big toe on my right foot gets hung-up on an obstruction under the dashboard – blame the not-yet-ready-for-production handcrafted interior.
A glance around reveals a very stark interior with only the most necessary controls.
The one-of-a-kind 14-inch steering wheel isn't as meaty as the wheel on the TT RS, and it lacks the race-inspired flat-bottom, but it has perfectly-sculpted indentations for hand and thumb placement (its CNC-milled aluminum spokes are works of art). The all-digital primary instrument panel is interesting and easy-to-read, but we still prefer oversize round tachometers with big, sweeping needles.
Bringing the Quattro Concept to life is a two-part process. The red "Start/Stop" button is on the center console, on the top left corner. One press sends electric power to the accessories, while the second tap fires the engine. The mechanical note of a straight-five is incredibly unique, but instantly recognizable. Even at idle, the 2.5-liter's sound resonates with a loud rasp through the thinly-insulated cabin. Both the intake manifold and mufflers are hand-crafted on the show car (we weren't allowed to take pictures of the engine), but Audi's engineers promise us they will do their best to retain the pleasant soundtrack if the car were to go into production.
With a full police escort ensuring all lanes were available for the trek up Pacific Coast Highway, we were surprised to find that Audi was kind enough to have a portion of the slalom-like Decker Canyon Road closed just for us. Sadly, this sounds much more promising than it really was.
Having your mom attend school with you guarantees the bullies won't push you around or steal your lunch, but it also eliminates your chances of cheating on that fourth-period Spanish test you didn't study for. It's difficult – no, impossible – to wring out a car surrounded by pack of intimidating black-and-whites. And we suspect that's exactly what Audi intended.
Regardless of our gun-touting uniformed chaperones (and a team of overly-protective Germans following chase), I pushed the Quattro Concept hard enough to make more than a few insightful observations.
First, even with a light clutch, the gearbox and engine are one hot duo. There's a notable amount of turbo lag down low, but once the pressure builds, the inline-five comes to life. While it doesn't quite feel like a full 408 horsepower (remember, the engine has been awkwardly shoehorned into a concept car), it has plenty of zing to send the lightweight platform down the road. Drop the throttle abruptly, and the blowoff burbles away. In a rare sports car synergism, the noises emanating from the engine, blowoff valve and exhaust sound just like I want them to.
Second, harnessing the power is a very slick manual transmission with one of the sweetest one-off carbon-fiber/aluminum shifters I've ever caressed. The lever is tall, but it subliminally reinforces the physical involvement with the driving experience. Gear selection is quick, both up and down the box, and very accurate. A 15-year-old with a learner's permit could nail each shift on his first stint behind the wheel.
Third, Audi's Quattro driveline is very adept at placing the engine's power precisely where the traction is needed. Decker Canyon is littered with loose gravel, especially on each side of the driving line, but the Concept holds its course with tenacity. Some credit is also owed to those four wide 275-mm tires, and a very low center of gravity, as available grip is much higher than the tolerances of my right-seat passenger (a nervous engineer on Audi's payroll).
Lastly, the massive carbon-ceramic brakes on the Quattro Concept are show car overkill (remember, it requires a lot of rotor to fill a 20-inch wheel). Touch the brake pedal, and speed is bled off so quickly we expected to see a parachute in the rear-view mirror. With the current setup, the stopping performance is so strong it's almost unnerving (keep in mind the identical brake setup easily brings the track-ready Audi's R8 GT to a stop – and it weighs 462 pounds more than this car).
The Quattro Concept is good – very good. The engineering team deserves praise for constructing a remarkably stiff and light chassis, and then finding all the proper go-fast parts in the corporate bin. The designers receive kudos as well, as they've successfully evoked the spirit of the original Audi Quattro in a unique, yet completely modern eye-catching shape. The entire package works well.
Still, make no mistake: The Audi Quattro Concept is a bona-fide show car that requires forgiveness. The suspension is unbelievably stiff, the ride height unacceptably low, and the turning circle enormously wide. All of these idiosyncrasies are the nature of a hand-built beast that makes its world debut under the glare of high-intensity show lights. But most concepts are nothing more than hollow fiberglass shells. And the few that actually do have running gear are less arranged to drive down a public road than a young St. Patrick's Day reveler late on the evening of March 17. Most automakers never allow journalists to sit in, let alone operate, multi-million-dollar showpieces.
So, why is Autoblog driving the Quattro Concept?
Because Audi really wants to build this car. Their business model says to put a drivable car in the hands of the media, set them free while ensuring it doesn't get balled-up and then gauge public reaction. If things go well and there's inertia, the Board of Directors will give the program a go-ahead and production cars will roll into showrooms in a few years. At introduction, the manufacturing run of a new Quattro would be very limited (more than 250 units, but less than 1,000), with a sticker price reflecting the build materials and exclusivity. Make no mistake: They would sell out quickly.
Our take: The Quattro Concept needs to be given the green light, but we're just a small piece of the sought-after momentum. Audi will spend the next several months poring over feedback from current Audi owners and potential conquest customers, reading the forums, scanning the magazines and perusing the blogs. Only then, will they make a decision.
So, now's your chance to be heard. Let Audi know what you think and start saving your pennies now...
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL